Book review: Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Selected Speeches by Nicola Sturgeon, ed. Robert Davidson

The range of subjects covered in these 40 speeches given by the First Minister between 2014 and 2020 show that those who claim she focusses on nothing but independence are barking up the wrong tree, writes Joyce McMillan

Nicola Sturgeon pictured at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on 13 May 2021 PIC: Russell Cheyne/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images
Nicola Sturgeon pictured at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on 13 May 2021 PIC: Russell Cheyne/Pool/AFP/via Getty Images

This new collection of speeches given by Nicola Sturgeon since she became First Minister of Scotland in November 2014, comes complete with a strongly supportive foreword by the novelist Val McDermid, a fierce and cheerful advocate for independence. She opens it by asking what political speeches are for, immediately coming up with several convincing possible answers – “winning over voters or damning opponents? Charming or conning us, or both?”

In truth, though, the “what for?” question poses itself even more urgently about a published collection of political speeches, particularly the speeches of a political figure who is still active, and intensely controversial. Most political supporters of Nicola Sturgeon will need no persuading about her eloquence on subjects that lie close to her heart, and about the liberal and enlightened postwar values she always represents – with notable consistency and passion – in her public pronouncements. The First Minister’s opponents, by contrast, many of whom detest her with a rare bitterness, are no more likely to read this book than they are to join the admiring groups of fans who gather wherever she goes, seeking a selfie with the FM.

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Those reservations about the book’s likely audience aside, though, it’s clear that this swift 290-page journey through 40 speeches given by the First Minister between November 2014 and February 2020, meticulously edited and presented by Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press, offers a fascinating portrait of a consistent and determined 21st century politician in action, during a period of profound upheaval in the UK and beyond. The speeches collected here are given in a huge range of locations, from conference halls in Beijing and Shanghai to Stanford University in California, the UN in New York, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye and the Pearce Institute in Govan.

Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Selected Speeches by Nicola Sturgeon

The range of domestic policy they cover is vast, from education and alcohol pricing to marine conservation, the concept of natural capital, and the need to switch from measures of crude economic growth to measures of wellbeing, if the world is to meet its vital climate targets. And in outlining her government’s domestic policies for Scotland, Sturgeon never loses sight of the wider global context, and of the need to work through international partnerships, particularly when it comes to one of her driving political passions – the need to unleash and support the talents of women, in building a more just and sustainable world.

And from this journey around the mind of Scotland’s First Minister, it’s possible, I think, to draw three conclusions. The first is that whatever questions may be raised about Sturgeon’s practical political skills in delivering on policy promises – and her record certainly has its share of missed targets and disappointing outcomes – she is a world-class advocate for the values of the post-Second World War settlement, at both national and global level, which she feels gave her the opportunity to become the leading politician she is today. Social welfare, social democracy, human rights and the rule of international law are her passions, and she speaks for them as well as any major politician currently operating on the world stage.

Secondly, those whose main line of attack against Sturgeon is that she focusses on nothing but independence, are simply barking up the wrong tree. At least at the level of policy and theory, her command of and interest in her government’s detailed domestic agenda is formidable, and although she often mentions her aspiration for Scotland one day to be fully independent, she is clearly tightly focussed, most of the time, on the “day job” of using Scotland’s existing powers to achieve a series of policy objectives around which there is a fair degree of consensus.

And finally, while Sturgeon’s speeches on domestic policy are interesting and detailed, those dealing with wider international issues, and with the deep values that underpin her politics, are often truly striking in their eloquence and breadth of vision. Her Jimmy Reid lecture on workers’ rights given at Glasgow University in 2015, her climate change speech to the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik in 2016, her response in the Scottish Parliament to the Paris terror attacks of 2015, and her thoughtful and passionate post-Brexit address in Brussels, just before lockdown last year, are all brilliant statements of how liberal values should be deployed and practised, in a troubled 21st century world.

Whatever the final historic verdict on Nicola Sturgeon’s political career, in other words, it seems certain, to judge by this collection, that she will be seen as a politician who defended those values, in troubled times, with a determination and rhetorical skill profoundly rooted in the postwar Scottish working-class culture that shaped her; and who, whatever political pressures and failures she experienced at home, was a formidable ambassador for her country abroad, placing Scotland at the heart of many key debates about our global future, even as the country struggled – through election after referendum – to reach any settled will about its own constitutional fate, in the 21st century.

Women Hold Up Half the Sky: Selected Speeches by Nicola Sturgeon, ed. Robert Davidson, Sandstone, £15.99

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